Norman Rockwell's iconic painting "Freedom of Speech" captures the civility of small-town democracy. The painter said he was inspired by a Vermont town meeting — specifically a man who stood up to speak out in dissent while his neighbors looked on respectfully.
That's not how town meetings have been going down in the Northeast Kingdom town of Victory, population 62, for as long as residents can remember.
During last year's meeting, Walter Mitchell rose and sarcastically nominated his longtime rival, Jan Stanley, to serve on the selectboard.
"I would like to nominate the most talented person in this room, they got all the answers. They have all the answers for years. The only thing I know smarter is my jackass, and I shot him," Mitchell, 63, said, according to meeting minutes. "That person is Jan Stanley."
Stanley called him "rude," according to the minutes, and declined the insincere nomination.
"I don't regret that statement one iota," Mitchell said during a recent interview in Victory, before hastening to add that he hadn't actually shot a donkey. "That was just a slam. I never hurt a donkey."
The Northeast Kingdom may look sepia-toned to outsiders, but Victory has been torn apart by nasty personal feuds between neighbors who can't even recall what precipitated them. While the stakes are laughably small, the enmity is huge. The Essex County Sheriff's Department provides security at every Victory selectboard meeting.
And the acrimony extends beyond the town hall. Members of rival groups have taken out no-trespassing orders against the others. The selectboard chair is convinced that a rival has tapped her phone. Several residents tell stories of having pets that they believe were maliciously killed. Almost everyone says they have received anonymous, threatening letters at one time or another.
"We're screwed up, basically," former town clerk and treasurer Carol Easter said.
In the late 1990s, the Boston Globe twice sent a reporter to Victory to document the conflict. Describing Victory as "less Norman Rockwell and more Edgar Allan Poe," the Globe reported on threatening letters, lawsuits, a pet ram that appeared to have been killed and accusations of financial shenanigans.
Two recent skirmishes have intensified the feuding.
In January, a handful of town officials revoked a tax exemption for a small humane society run by Patricia Mitchell, Walter's wife. Mitchell turned around and sued the town, accusing the officials of carrying out a personal vendetta against her.
This year's town meeting was dominated by news that an independent audit of Victory's books has turned up missing records, undocumented spending and evidence of possible embezzlement from the town, which has a $500,000 budget. A private accountant told the Victory residents gathered earlier this month that she had found "very significant problems" dating back several years. Her findings have triggered a new round of accusations and name-calling. Two law enforcement officers were on hand to help control the ensuing debate.
Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby said he has lost count of how many times his office has received complaints and requests for investigations from Victory. He laughs off most of them.
"You're talking few people, long-term relationships, families that have been there for years," Colby said. "In small towns, they don't have a ton of supervision of employees, so it's just ripe for accusations." And with about 25 elected or appointed town positions to fill, nearly half of Victory's residents are involved in town affairs. "The votes to change leadership are so close, and the accusations are so fierce," said Colby, "that there's times where it gets out of hand."
There are no schools in Victory. No post office, stores, gas stations or churches indicate a town center. A crooked sign on the edge of town announces matter-of-factly, "Town of Victory."
Most residents live on a few dirt roads scratched into Victory Hill, where modest homes provide views of New Hampshire's White Mountains. The other area, Gallup Mills, is six miles away and consists mostly of trailer homes, ranging from tidy to crumbling, clustered in a small valley. In between are about 20,000 acres of state-owned forest and bogs. A bumpy dirt road connects the two areas.
Even by Vermont standards, it's isolated. Victory was one of the last two towns in Vermont to get electricity. Ambulances take 20 to 45 minutes to arrive, according to residents.
But neither geography nor socioeconomic status can explain the feud, which everyone interviewed for this article acknowledged has been raging for about 20 years. No one could say what started it.
"You see how lonely it is, how out of the way it is?" asked resident Donna Bacchiochi. "The reason we moved here is we aren't social. People in Victory are like that. They don't visit each other, they don't kibitz, they don't do anything like that. It's vicious."
There are two factions in town: One is headed by Patricia Mitchell— of humane society fame — and her husband, Walter, who currently serves on the selectboard. Other members of the "Mitchell Mafia," as a rival refers to them, include former road agent Walt Neborsky and his wife, Ruth, who used to be the town clerk and treasurer.
The current town clerk and treasurer, Tracey Martel, is also considered part of the Mitchell group, which for years wielded the most influence in town.
But the power has since shifted so that the other faction — selectboard chair Ferne Loomis, town lister Stanley, Sandra Hudson, and former town clerk and treasurer, Easter — now holds a majority on the selectboard.
Not surprisingly, the Mitchell group has a plan to regain power. Its supporters have submitted a petition to expand the number of seats on the selectboard, from three to five, in hopes of electing two allies and recapturing the majority. If the petition passes, nearly 10 percent of Victory's registered voters would serve on the town's primary governing body — in Burlington, the equivalent would be 4,000 city councilors.
Victory's residents are pretty evenly split between the two feuding factions. Most of them don't have jobs — the selectboard estimates that more than 80 percent of residents are collecting either retirement or disability payments. And many of those who do work are part-time builders or contractors. The selectboard meets at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, which, in a typical Vermont town, would surely discourage citizen participation.
Victory, it seems, has the opposite problem.
In February, word got out around Victory that Martel was considering a run for town clerk and treasurer. She opened her mailbox one afternoon and found an anonymous letter.
"Lady, you have been had," it read, accusing Martel's allies in town of stealing money, burning town records and embezzling from charities. It went on to suggest Martel was "joining the ICIS of Victory," misspelling the acronym for the Islamic terrorist organization, and her life was about to become "pure hell." It ended by asking Martel, who is married, if she was having sex with a former town official.
The letter shocked Martel, who had moved from Florida to Vermont the year before.
By Victory standards, though, it was tame.
In 1997, Stanley, now 62, was arrested on charges of threatening to burn down the home of a political rival — she was placed on probation after agreeing to a plea deal, according to the Globe. Stanley says her statements were taken out of context and that she was a victim of harassment at the time.
Numerous animals — innocent victims in the battle royale — have been less lucky, according to residents: The Mitchells claimed a friend's sheep was strangled several years ago, and they suspect their own dog was poisoned. Stanley said she found her pet cat dead on her porch, with its tail cut off and wrapped around its neck.
Calling the Mitchells "horse thieves," she said they are solely responsible for the years of bitter fighting in Victory.
"The Mitchells are the ringleaders," Stanley said. "They are very devious, hateful."
In a letter published in this year's town report, Stanley intimated that Patricia Mitchell had misappropriated $1,000 donated by town residents two decades ago by sarcastically thanking her for recently "returning" it. Mitchell denied any wrongdoing.
Stanley is one of two town listers who last year led an effort to raise the Mitchells' property taxes. Patricia Mitchell runs a small animal shelter, the Elizabeth H. Brown Humane Society, on a property adjacent to her hillside home.
Town records indicate that both Mitchells served on the town committee that made the decision to exempt the five-acre property, which includes a barn for the animals and a house, from taxation. The same records indicate that only Walter Mitchell recused himself during the vote. In a recent interview, Patricia Mitchell claimed she did, too.
At the end of last year, Stanley and other officials ruled that the Mitchells' adult son, Walter Mitchell Jr., and his family were living in the home, and that therefore it should not be exempt from taxes. The change would cost the Mitchells about $2,000 annually.
The decision ignited a firestorm.
Patricia Mitchell sued the town in Essex Superior Court, seeking to have the exemption reinstated. Without it, she said, she might have to close an operation that currently cares for 23 rabbits, 10 goats, a llama, two mini horses, a donkey, 10 chickens, two horses, two sheep and an alpaca.
Patricia Mitchell argued that their son is a caretaker for the humane society and helps with the animals when she is away. Perhaps undercutting that argument, she also said that he pays her $700 monthly rent, which represents the largest revenue stream for the private animal sanctuary.
Records indicate that Stanley and others sought advice from the Vermont Department of Taxes, which advised that the humane society property should remain exempt. They revoked its exemption anyway.
In interviews, Stanley and her backers called Mitchell a "hoarder" who keeps the animals for herself.
"Don't give me that crap, that he's the caretaker," Stanley said. "She has no more a humane society down there than you or me."
"Everybody is running around, 'Poor Pat Mitchell,' because the town won't help her with her doggy day care," Loomis, 71, said. "They're all her pets. We all know it."
Patricia Mitchell denied that allegation and said that Stanley and others are motivated by jealousy of her hilltop home and 200-acre property.
"Jealousy of anybody who has anything," she explained. "They live in 'shantytown,' that's what they call it." Stanley lives in a trailer.
While the lawsuit is still pending, Patricia Mitchell won a small victory: During recent town elections, her daughter-in-law, Katrina Mitchell, who lives in the contested humane society property, won election to serve as one of the town's listers, alongside Stanley.
The humane society imbroglio was the talk of Victory for weeks, before it was overshadowed by events at town meeting.
Nearly 50 of Victory's 62 residents packed into the one-room town hall on March 3. A private accountant, Bonnie Batchelder, rose to speak first. Commissioned by the selectboard to conduct a forensic audit, Batchelder had examined the town's books from 2009 to 2012 and found "very significant problems."
Hundreds of checks, representing well more than $200,000, had been issued by town officials without invoices or written authorization, Batchelder told the crowd. Delinquent tax fees and penalties had been collected from some, but not all, residents. Several tax forms are missing. The town computer had been wiped clean, though auditors were eventually able to retrieve some data.
"There's been tons of information missing," Batchelder said. "It goes on and on. No matter how big or small your town is, that's unacceptable."
Batchelder did not name names, or get into specifics — her final report will be released later this year. Until then, she is in charge of cutting checks on behalf of the town. During her presentation, Batchelder did reserve praise for the town clerk, Easter. She said that Easter had helped to get the town's books into the best shape they had ever been in.
An hour later, Victory residents voted Easter out of office — and Martel in.
In the audience was Essex County State's Attorney Vince Illuzzi, who said he had heard rumors of financial improprieties in Victory and wanted to hear from Batchelder. Illuzzi acknowledged criminal charges were possible. But he said that, given the complex nature of the allegations, he was withholding judgment until the final audit is released.
The veteran politician proved a quick study of the dynamics in Victory.
"There's a lot of animosity between two factions in town, and it's difficult to draw any conclusions," Illuzzi said. "Depending on what group you talk to, you're perceived as being affiliated with one group or the other."
Depending on which side you're on, the preliminary findings from the audit are either proof of deep-seated corruption — by someone — or evidence of the latest vendetta designed to make the other side look bad.
In an interview, Walt Neborsky said he expects he and his wife will be targets of the audit. A contractor, Neborsky managed Victory's roads for more than a decade until March 2014, when he got "fed up" with constant hectoring from the Stanley faction. He quit hours before a big snowstorm, forcing the town to scramble to hire a private contractor to clear the roads.
Ruth Neborsky was town clerk and treasurer for 10 years. She resigned in December 2013 after the same group accused her of moving to neighboring Kirby, making her ineligible to serve. "I verbally beat her up at town meeting," Stanley boasted, taking credit for Ruth Neborsky's departure.
In the interview, Walt Neborsky said he and his wife have done nothing wrong. "It's bogus," he said. "We did so much for the town for free. They're trying to go after everybody. Jealousy, that's what it comes down to: more money, better cars."
Had anything illegal happened, Neborsky said, "I think that would have hit the papers."
Ruth Neborsky sounded the same note. "I will never understand hatred," she said. "I have no doubt that in 10 years I made mistakes. But as a far as any willful wrongdoing, absolutely not."
Walter Mitchell, who is a friend of the Neborskys, has challenged the legitimacy of the audit. He and others have also questioned whether the $27,000 expenditure to fund it was properly authorized.
"I wouldn't be upset if they were doing what's right for the town, but they ain't," Mitchell said. "They're doing stuff to satisfy them, not the town. Like this forensic audit ... I think they're spending a lot of money for nothing. I know some records disappeared, but who is to say who did it?"
Others say the audit report will confirm their long-held suspicions.
Sandra Hudson, one of the Mitchells' chief antagonists, welcomed a visitor to her well-kept trailer home on a recent afternoon.
Her cats lounged on the sofa, while a fire burned in the woodstove. Hudson served a soup and a sandwich, laughed easily, and constantly fretted that her tidy home wasn't suitable for guests.
But when she began discussing the audit, her manner abruptly changed. Her eyes bulged, she started to shake and her voice grew loud. The audit, she said, confirmed what her camp had feared for years.
"The town isn't just corrupt, it's utterly corrupt," Hudson, 62, said. "I can't emphasize that enough. Money and power, that's what it's all about."
Less than a week after Town Meeting Day, the Victory selectboard convened while the town was still in an uproar about the impending audit. An Essex County sheriff's deputy, who has become well-known to town residents, settled into the back row of folding chairs.
For the first few minutes, Loomis, the chair of the board, and Walter Mitchell took pains to keep their rivalry at bay, and laced their comments with plenty of pleases and thank-yous.
In an interview, Loomis said she tries to speak cautiously, because she has long been suspicious that someone from the Mitchell faction has tapped her telephone: During a selectboard meeting months ago, she said, people were heard discussing details of a town project that she had only shared with one person over the phone.
The crowd sat quietly as the board deliberately went through some procedural matters to start the meeting.
But the tranquility soon evaporated.
Discussion turned to whether the town should move from town-meeting voice voting to secret "Australian" ballot. The anti-Mitchell side has labeled the lack of ballot voting a major "civil rights issue."
Then someone brought up a controversy from years ago, a long-abandoned plan to build a new town garage. Voices grew more animated.
Finally, the audit was mentioned.
"The town never authorized it," Mitchell said.
"Yes, they did," Loomis said.
"No, they didn't," Mitchell said.
From the audience, Stanley yelled, "It's up to the board," meaning the Victory selectboard.
"I think you should vote for the town instead of your personal interests, that's what I think!" Mitchell said to Loomis.
"This is just bullshit!" Jan Stanley yelled from the back row.
Meanwhile, Walt Neborsky and Easter had gotten into their own spat. He dismissively waved his hand at the 70-year-old woman, telling her to "turn around."
Loomis decided it might be time to end the meeting.
"This is getting to be a little out of control," Loomis said. "I'm going to close it."
"You can close it if you want," Mitchell responded. "I'm going to be here next time."
The parties then clustered into their two camps and, after chatting for a few minutes, filed into their cars and drove off.
Back at his home, Mitchell sat at his kitchen counter and insisted that he always tries to stay above the fray. He only speaks, he said, when it's in the best interests of Victory, where he's lived for more than 30 years.
Asked if he could ever envision a time when the hostilities in town might end, Mitchell paused for a moment, and then looked his questioner straight in the eye.
"Yeah, I do," he said. "When everybody is dead. Including me."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Threats, Lawsuits and Dead Animals"